Chrysler Group’s CEO, Sergio Marchionne, who also heads the company’s managing partner, Fiat of Italy, dished some interesting details to the automotive press about his scheme for how Chrysler plans to handle its most valuable brand — Jeep.
Under previous owners, Daimler AG and Cerberus Capital Management, the No. 3 Detroit automaker didn’t flourish. Examples of how Chrysler floundered during this time are manifest, but one of the worst casualties from the period was Jeep, whose image and sales performance were battered by poorly conceived models, such as the compact Compass and the seven-seat Commander.
Meeting with reporters at the Detroit auto show in January, the always-blunt Marchionne vowed that Fiat-run Chrysler intends to get Jeep back to its rightful place as the brand most associated with go-anywhere capabilities. And uncharacteristic for an auto executive, he even admitted to some of the company’s bad calls (conveniently, they didn’t happen under his watch), calling the Jeep Commander, for example, “unfit for human consumption.”
The Commander, in fact, just went out of production, but the Chrysler CEO revealed the company is quickly going to take another shot at the market for large, ultra-luxury Sport Utility Vehicles with three-row seating by reviving the storied Grand Wagoneer name for an full-size Jeep coming around 2013.
The modern Grand Wagoneer likely will be based on the same chassis as today’s 2011 Dodge Durango, which itself shares its Mercedes-originated platform with Jeep’s completely redesigned Grand Cherokee, a model that’s earned smashingly good reviews and whose sales have surged every month since its launch last June. For the year, Jeep sales were up 26 percent.
Marchionne said that if he had been in charge at the time, the new Dodge Durango, which has three-row seating, never would have happened. Instead, it would have been reconfigured to be sold by Jeep as the Grand Wagoneer. Chrysler dealerships are being transformed to sell all of the company’s brands under one roof, and Marchionne thinks there’s room for only one brand in the new Chrysler showrooms to sell “genuine” SUVs — and that brand is Jeep.
Jeep will return to selling only models that have real off-road abilities. “Every (Jeep) has to be able to offer a `Trail-Rated’ version,” he said flatly.
Jeep developed the “Trail-Rated” moniker to be singular proof to buyers that a particular model is capable of handling the toughest off-road challenges. He said not every Jeep customer wants — or needs — the optional heavy-duty components needed to earn the Trail-Rated badge, but each Jeep model has to at least have the potential to be outfitted for the Trail-Rated capability.
“I can’t have a Mickey-Mouse Jeep,” Marchionne said, probably referring to some of the brand’s models developed before he and Fiat took over the reins at Chrysler. That would include lightweight efforts such as the Compass and Patriot, two car-platform models that many critics point to as symbolic of Jeep’s lack of focus, even though Jeep engineers hastily developed new upgrades to beef up the Compass enough to earn the Trail-Rated badge.
In the end, Chrysler’s chief promises no more confusion about what a Jeep is and what it’s about. Fans of the brand — and they’re all over the globe — ultimately will be the judges, though, of whether Jeep returns to its former glory. Chief executive Marchionne and the reconstituted Chrysler hope Jeep aficionados demonstrate approval by pulling out their checkbooks. — Bill Visnic, Motor Matters
Pictured: 1966 Jeep Wagoneer and 1978 Wagoneer.